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What Makes a Company a Great Place to Work?

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Here are four words you don't often hear: "I love my job."

But a few months ago, Working Mother magazine released its annual issue devoted to the "100 Best Companies to Work For." And sometime next month, the cover of Fortune will be emblazoned with the name of the lucky company that's just been named the number one best place to work in the U.S., according to the Great Place to Work Institute (and inside, the other 99 companies, in ranked order.)

So, do all the people who work at these companies routinely go home to their spouses and friends and shout "I love my job?" Only in your dreams. (And then only if you have a rather boring dream-life.)

No company has 100 percent satisfied employees. There are always going to be things to gripe about, and let's face it, even those of us with the world's most satisfying careers generally look forward to the weekends.

Nonetheless, employees of the companies that get on these lists often do seem happier with their jobs than those at other companies. And that's because "best companies" do have something over a lot of other employers. What they have, exactly, depends somewhat on which list we're talking about (each has a slightly different focus) but they do generally have certain things in common:

• They treat employees like grown-ups. They share information with employees, listen to their ideas (or better yet, actively seek out and act upon their ideas) and assume they are responsible enough to manage their own time.

• They treat people fairly. They pay people decently and give them good benefits, including not only decent healthcare but other even rarer essentials, like paid parental leave. And they use lay-offs as a last resort.

• They help employees with their careers and understand that not all careers are built the same. They have strong training programs, reimburse tuition for education outside of work, have active, well-thought out platforms for mentoring--especially for women and minorities--and provide pathways for non-traditional career paths.

• They understand that people have lives outside of work, and that these lives might sometimes impinge on (or even take over) their time and attention. They realize that allowing for some work-life give and take means not only that they won't waste time and money on unnecessary turnover, but that they'll build loyalty and commitment. They know it's give and take, not give or take.

• They see fun, humor and relaxation not as the enemies of hard work, but as its allies.

• They have a purpose -- a mission -- that everyone understands. Even better, every employee can tell you the role he or she plays in achieving that purpose.

• They are good citizens of their communities and of the world. Not just according to their P.R. campaigns, but for real. They think about their carbon footprint, they come up with creative ways to support local projects or small businesses, they actively promote volunteerism among their employees.

It's not easy to achieve all of this. But some companies have come admirably close, and others are to be applauded for trying. Life, as the philosopher Hobbes so pithily pointed out, can be solitary, brutish, nasty and short. If we spend about a third of our lives working (and about another third sleeping), doesn't it make sense to do what we can to make our jobs a bit less miserable?

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who helps companies put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and create compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR and general-topic employee communications. Her award-winning blog about writing for corporate communicators can be found at www.robinhardman.wordpress.com; see http://www.robinhardman.com for information about her services.